Speaking Another Language: Australian Multilingual Films

Research Study

Claire McCarthy, University of Tasmania


In Australia, the film industry—supported by government subsidies since the 1970s—has a central role in reflecting and informing ideas about national identity. As Australian multicultural filmmaking developed in the 1990s, so did the presence of Australian made multilingual cinema, highlighting Australia’s changing relationship with the Asia-Pacific region, and growing linguistic, as well as cultural, diversity. Using key concepts from adaptation studies and Australian film studies, this article uses textual analysis to draw attention to a series of Australian films that 1) represent Asian-Australian migrant subjects, and, 2) are multilingual and multicultural representations of Australian life. The films analysed are: Floating Life (1996), La Spagnola (2001), The Finished People (2003), Footy Legends (2006), and Unfinished Sky (2007). The analysis finds that these examples illustrate the adaptation or creative interpretation of multiculturalism as a national heritage discourse, and raises questions about the practicality of Australian multiculturalism as a national framework in the context of an ongoing commitment to a singular national language, English.


En Australie, l’industrie cinématographique, soutenue par des subventions gouvernementales depuis les années 1970, joue un rôle central dans la réflexion et la diffusion des idées sur l’identité nationale. Au fur et à mesure que le cinéma multiculturel australien se développait dans les années 1990, la présence du cinéma multilingue australien s’est développée, mettant en évidence la relation changeante de l’Australie avec la région Asie-Pacifique et la diversité linguistique et culturelle croissante. En s’appuyant sur des concepts clés d’études d’adaptation et d’études cinématographiques australiennes, cet article utilise l’analyse textuelle pour attirer l’attention sur une série de films australiens qui représentent des sujets de migrants australiens asiatiques, et qui sont des représentations multilingues et multiculturelles de la vie australienne. Les films analysés sont Floating Life (1996), La Spagnola (2001), The Finished People (2003), Footy Legends (2006) et Unfinished Sky (2007). L’article constate que ces exemples illustrent l’adaptation ou l’interprétation créative du multiculturalisme en tant que discours sur le patrimoine national, soulevant des questions sur le caractère pratique du multiculturalisme australien en tant que cadre national dans le contexte de l’engagement continu envers une langue nationale singulière, l’anglais.

Keywords: film,  national identity, multilingual, multiculturalism, Australia.

Mots-clés: film, identité nationale, multilingue, multiculturalisme, Australie.


In Australia, the film industry—supported by government subsidies since the 1970s—has a central role in reflecting and informing ideas about national identity (Dermody & Jacka, 1987; Elder, 2007; O’Regan, 1996, 2002; Turner, 1994, 1999). As Australian multicultural filmmaking developed in the 1990s, so did the presence of Australian-made multilingual cinema, which highlighted Australia’s changing relationship with the Asia-Pacific region, and its growing recognition of linguistic, as well as cultural, diversity. Australia, already a multicultural and multilingual nation long before it was named Australia in 1901 (Moreton-Robinson, 2015), experienced a massive period of migration after World War II. In response, a new multiculturalism policy was introduced, which espoused cultural tolerance and social inclusion (Grassby, 1972). Multicultural became a normative and ideological description of the population (Lopez, 2000). It stood in contrast to the concept of a White Australia, typically characterised by the White Australia policy—a suite of twentieth century immigration controls that restricted entry to Australia on the basis of race (Lake & Reynolds, 2008; Richards, 2008). This article uses key concepts from adaptation studies and Australian film studies to analyse five films that adapt the popular representation of multiculturalism as a policy and national ethos, using languages additional to English.

Conceptual Framework

Applying Elliott’s (2014) concept of doing adaptation, the textual analysis in this article highlights the adaptation or creative interpretation of multiculturalism as national heritage and multilingual discourse in Australian film. Elliott’s work repositions the idea of adaptation as critic, which allows her to suggest new ways of theorising and writing about adaptations, and creates different angles from which to engage with adapted texts. Adaptation is impossible to define in a fixed way, because by definition, it is always changing (Hutcheon, 2006). Elliott uses the idea of doing adaptation to develop a pedagogical approach. She argues that undertaking the process of adapting texts from one form to another offers new insight into the process and context of their production. As she puts it, “Doing adaptation opens insights, interpretations, and concepts inaccessible to conventional modes of theorizing, criticism, and expository writing about adaptations.It also offers new ways to engage the aesthetics of adaptations” (Elliott, 2014, p. 71).

This article uses the same concept of doing adaptation to closely read and characterise five films as multilingual adaptations of Australian multiculturalism. Framed in this way, the analysis goes beyond considering each film’s status as a representation—of Australian society, multiculturalism, migration, migrant subjects—to consider how each film has interpreted, explored, theorised, critiqued, and given expression to culture and identity. The analysis also raises questions about the effectiveness of Australian multiculturalism as a national framework in the context of an ongoing commitment to a singular national language, English (Australian Government, 2020). While it is not unusual for Australian films to include small amounts of dialogue in languages other than English, this series of films was selected because they use multiple languages and English subtitles. The article argues that this is key to demonstrating that Australian multiculturalism is not only culturally diverse, but also involves a multilingual and multiracial discourse.

The Films For Analysis

Each of the selected films, released between 1996 and 2007, adapts multiculturalism as a government policy and national ethos, and includes representations of Asian-Australian or other migrant subjects, as well as multilingual portrayals of Australian society. These films are: Floating Life (1996), La Spagnola (2001), The Finished People (2003), Footy Legends (2006), and Unfinished Sky (2007). Floating Life is a drama about a Hong Kong family who have migrated to Sydney, and demonstrates how more conservative representations of migrant subjects can be disrupted. Footy Legends is a comedy starring comedian Anh Do as a footy-mad Vietnamese-Australian man trying to raise his kid sister; in Footy Legends, there is a return to the genre of migrant comedy (Simpson et al., 2009), but for a twenty-first century audience. The Finished People, directed by Khoa Do and also set in Sydney, is a social realist film (a drama touching on pressing social issues) about a group of homeless youth. It examines the intersection between homelessness and the culturally diverse make-up of Australia’s underclass. La Spagnola is about a Spanish woman living in a remote Australian town with her teenage daughter. The narrative is a representation of Spanish migration, and while it remains fixated on European migrant identities rather than Asian-Australian, it is predominately in Spanish rather than English, making it quite different to other multicultural Australian films. Unfinished Sky is a romantic, crime drama in which an Afghani woman escapes sex-trafficking and is given sanctuary by a reclusive farmer who teaches her English.

Taken together, the films explore the lives of characters from Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, often in the characters’ native languages, thus relying on English subtitles for large parts of each film. Linguistically, the films include Cantonese (Floating Life), Dari (Unfinished Sky), English (all films), Spanish (La Spagnola), and Vietnamese (The Finished People, Footy Legends), a linguistic diversity that goes some way to reflecting the Australian population, but is far from the norm of the Australian screen. Together, the films were chosen because they all deploy subtitles and use two or more languages, and—in the context of an officially, English-speaking nation—can be defined as multilingual.

Australia as A Multicultural Nation

When Australia became a nation in 1901, it had a population of 3.8 million people, 22.6% of whom were born overseas. The majority of those new Australians were from the United Kingdom and Ireland (79.7%). The first pieces of legislation the Australian Parliament passed were the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901, the latter enabling the deportation of Pacific Islander indentured labourers. While racial language was left out of the actual legislation, White racial purity was the intention (Lake & Reynolds, 2008; Markus, 2003). At that time, people from only one Asian country—China—were included in census counts; they represented 3.5% of the population in 1901. In 2016, Australia’s population was 23.4 million, 26.3% of whom were born overseas. Where Australians from overseas were born has changed dramatically. Among the top ten countries of birth, China represents 8.3% and is one of six Asian countries listed. The United Kingdom remains the country of origin of the largest percentage of new Australians born overseas; however, that group now represents only 17.7% of the total overseas-born population (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018). However, Australian multiculturalism continues to be contested.

With the development of multiculturalism as a new national ethos in the 1980s, Australia began to renegotiate its relationship with the Asia-Pacific region, and indeed its perceptions of its own national identity. In a landmark speech in Singapore in 1996, Prime Minister Paul Keating (ALP 1991-1996) spoke in detail about the relationship between Australia and Asia. Described as new regionalism, the outlook Keating described took into account Australia’s greater reliance on economic partnerships and trade with Asian nations, as well as a shift in defence-planning towards the idea “that Australia needs to seek its security in Asia rather than from Asia.” Appealing directly to national and regional values, Keating (1996) declared:

the values I believe in and most Australians believe in are precisely those that are often referred to in this debate as “Asian”. The importance of family, the benefit of education, the need for order and public accountability, the inherent value of work – most Australians I know would describe these as Australian values. (n.p.)

However, counter to new regionalist views, cultural debates shifted irrevocably to the Right just a couple months after Keating’s speech, when he was voted out of office and the Howard Government took power. In the same 1996 election, the Leader of the One Nation Party, Pauline Hanson, won a seat in the lower house. Famously, in her maiden speech, she conjured racist (“yellow peril”) arguments associated with the White Australia policy, which was officially abolished in 1975 (Lake & Reynolds, 2008). Hanson (1996) argued that the rate of Asian immigration was swamping Australia. Her comments reflected a growing climate of contestation towards multiculturalism, and represented a reassertion of Australia as a non-Asian (or as a White) nation, despite its being part of the Asian region and home to millions of Australians with Asian heritage—especially Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese heritage.

Anderson’s (1983) theory of nations as imagined communities proposed that a nation is imagined because it is made up of vast groups of people who will never all meet, but who are unified by their shared belief in ideas about what makes up that nation and its people (Anderson, 2006). The concept of nations as imagined also explained diasporas; nations scattered across or beyond multiple borders. Building on and adapting Anderson’s (1983) theory, Taylor (2004) famously developed the concept of modern social imaginaries:

the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations (p. 23)

The current article argues that the representation of multiculturalism in Australian film both reflects and shapes the ways people imagine their lives in relation to others, within and across the borders of different nation-states. Indeed, film informs and shapes how Australians imagine what multiculturalism is. The article argues that the representation of multiculturalism in or through Australian film is a powerful influencer of ideas surrounding legitimate Australian nationhood. Taylor (2004) has further described the social imaginary as “that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy” (p. 23). Therefore, the current analysis takes the position that Australian film, especially as a nationally sponsored industry, is not only central to the ongoing construction of national identities, but also to the ongoing production of Australian cultural and multicultural heritage.

Australian Multicultural Cinema

In Australia, there is a strong tradition of filmmaking about the Australian nation and its people’s stories. Within this cinema, multicultural films have been defined as films “where the main character or characters are non-Anglo Australian” (Stratton, 1999, p. 75). Multicultural filmmaking is “an important medium for migrant representation because of the opportunities it affords to subvert traditional Anglo-Celtic narratives that house, support, and rehearse discriminatory or biased forms of national identity” (Jacobs, 2010, p. 105). However, in an Australian context, multicultural films are often not what Naficy (2001) defined as accented cinema, caught on the boundaries of national cinema consumption, easily differentiated from linguistic or cultural norms. In fact, Australian multicultural films are often widely-consumed examples of Australian cinema that have huge box office earnings at home and abroad, for instance, Strictly Ballroom (1992) (about a Spanish-Australian family, which made AUD$80 million), The Wog Boy (2000) (about a second generation Greek-Australian migrant, which made AUD$11.5 million), or Looking for Alibrandi (2000) (a coming-of-age narrative about Italian-Australian teenager, Josie, and which made AUD$8.3 million). While these amounts are not huge when compared to American film earnings, for Australian-made films they are significant.

As well as differing from accented cinema (Naficy, 2001), Australian multicultural films often differ for the most part from Marks’ (2000) concept of “intercultural cinema” (p. 11). Marks has argued that, as a medium, intercultural cinema negotiated place and culture in a transnational and postcolonial world. Marks has characterised culturally diverse representation in film as more akin to world cinema, arguing it transgresses national borders, existing within and across the boundaries of nation-states, and—to employ Taylor (2004)—conjuring new forms of modern social imaginaries. Dennison and Song (2006) define the concept of “world cinema” by its “situatedness” (p. 21), suggesting that it refers mostly to practices or products that are defined as non-Western. At times, the term world cinema has been interpreted as derogatory (Byrne, 1999). In the context of Australian film, world cinema is often used to refer to those releases that—to use Naficy’s (2001) or Marks’ (2000) concepts—are interpreted as accented or intercultural, and thus take up transnational and interstitial, as well as national spaces, for example, by representing non-White and non-English speaking characters. In Australia, these kinds of films—including films such as the ones analysed in this article—tend to be positioned outside the mainstream (of Australian culture and multiculturalism), and have very small box office earnings. In contrast, to much of Australia’s multicultural cinema (which is still focused through the language of English), the films analysed in this article include multilingual and multiracial diversity.

Multiracial and Multicultural Diversity

In Australian cinema (as in much of the rest of the world), there is a diversity problem even in multicultural filmmaking. There is a tendency to focus on White characters (Elder, 2007; O’Regan, 2002; Turner, 1999), or migrant subjects who are European (mostly Italian or Greek), conjuring the period of massive post-World War II migration. In this context, Asian-Australians often only receive limited representation: “bit parts” or “fleeting representation” (Simpson et al., 2009, pp. 33; 35), potentially including small parts within a larger group or chorus parts such as the Vietnamese-Australian characters in the first half of Romper Stomper (1992). Smaller cameos for comedic effect, for instance the Vietnamese pizza delivery boys in The Wog Boy (2000), or the drug dealer’s harem of young Asian men in Down Under (2016), may also be considered bit parts.

For example, in They’re a Weird Mob (1966), which is about an Italian migrant who arrives in Sydney in the bustling 1950s, there is only one Chinese character, a man who lives next door to the building site where Nino works and who drives a van with a golden dragon painted on the side. In this example, as well as many more recent ones, the Chinese-Australian man is stereotyped (Elder, 2007; O’Regan, 1996; Simpson et al., 2009). They’re a Weird Mob gestures to a global political situation in which communism posed an ever-present threat to the West, and to Australia’s uncertainty of its place in the Asia-Pacific region. While the Chinese-Australian man is depicted as a neighbour, he is also represented as different, silent, and culturally and physically apart from Nino (an Italian immigrant) and his White Australian friends. These examples suggest that Asian-Australian characters are simultaneously a constant fixture of Australian cinema and continuously limited in the roles they perform.

More recently, the character-motif of the Chinese cook (e.g., Sing Song in Australia, 2008) is an example of entrenched typecasting for people with Asian heritage (Bertone, 1998). Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008) portrays the homestead cook as a racist Asian stereotype. The cook, named Sing Song and played by Hong Kong actor Yuen Wah, is characterised as a loyal servant to the White station owners. He is denigrated and made fun of by his “Yellowface name, his frantic rants in Chinese, and his relegation to the feminine realm of the kitchen” (Hogan, 2010, pp. 69-70). In their detailed study of the representation of Asian characters in Australian film, Khoo et al. (2013) claim that even though Asian characters have been present in Australian cinema since the 1920s, they continue to be represented in stereotypical ways. Asian characters, especially Chinese and Vietnamese characters, tend to be associated with the “social problems of drugs, prostitution and gambling” (p. 25). In Australian cinema, it is often the case that Asian characters are marginalised or represented in token ways—what Turner (1989) calls a “social process” that is “seemingly extraneous to the process of gendered nation-building” (p. 33). The depiction of Asian characters in the examples just listed illustrates this theory. While there is a much larger body of research examining the ongoing exoticisation in Australian film and television of Asian-Australians (a term which, in itself, comprises many different nationalities and ethnicities), this article analyses some examples of Asian-Australian and multilingual representation (i.e., film) that act as adaptations of multiculturalism as a multilingual phenomenon in ways that foreground and sometimes give agency back to non-White or non-English speaking identities by representing multicultural and multilingual characters.

Multicultural Representation and Gender

However, as intersectionality reminds us (Crenshaw, 1986), race, culture, nationality, and language are also intersected by gender. It is common for young Asian women to be portrayed as caught up in sex-trafficking exploitation, such as in Australia Day (2017), where Lan Chang (Jenny Wu) is sex-trafficked. Analysis of films like these further provides insight into ways in which, even in multilingual films, female “ethnic” characters are frequently silenced (i.e., the character lacks agency or no sub-titles are provided for the character, meaning she cannot be understood by an English-speaking audience). Where male characters tend to have speaking roles, female migrant characters are frequently sidelined physically and verbally (through a lack of language), thus reducing their power in the context of the narrative and limiting the amount of screentime they receive. Through the lens of adaptation studies, these examples illustrate how multiculturalism has been interpreted as a multilingual and transnational discourse, yet also how it is intersected by gender.

What is Foreign-Language Film?

In Floating Life, multiple languages are used in addition to English, which is typically the language of the subtitles. The film was selected as Australia’s entry for “Best Foreign Language Film” in 1997 at the 69th Academy Awards; yet the nomination was refused. This is relevant because it indicates the interstitial space that Australian multilingual films (like those in other predominantly English-speaking countries) exist in: they are considered neither part of mainstream Australian film culture, nor officially part of the foreign-language sphere. In the rule book for the Oscars, a “foreign language film”—or now, an “international feature film”—is defined as “a feature-length motion picture … produced outside the United States of America with a predominantly non-English dialogue track” (Oscars, 2019). However, there have been many instances where multilingual films that meet the rule book’s criteria are deemed to have too much English and are therefore disqualified from nomination. Floating Life is an example of such a film.

Chan (2008), on the subject of the rejection of the Singaporean film Be With Me (2005) from Oscar nomination, argued that “[i]n a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on English for inter-cultural communication, the Academy’s conservative criteria in the Best Foreign Language Film category are starting to appear more and more out of sync with the social and cultural realities of the present time” (p. 98). For a multicultural film, missing out on an Oscar, a massive indicator of global success, is one thing; not even being able to be nominated (and therefore not having access to any associated world promotion) is a further barrier to reaching potential new audiences. The Academy’s exclusion criteria ensures that their awards primarily go to films in English, and implies that films made in other languages do not entirely fit in any available category, even though they reflect the multilingual reality of societies around the world.

Floating Life

Floating Life is about a family from Hong Kong who settle in Sydney. The Chan family arrive in Australia in a state of fear and unease. The sun is too bright, the native animals are deadly, and there is endless space. The parents keenly feel the distance from their ancestors, and the older daughter, Bing, who has been living in Australia for seven years on her own, enters a state of deep depression when she is unable to provide for her family in the way she wants to. Summarised by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) as portraying “[a]n Asian family … caught between two cultures” (Byrnes, 1996), the film was critically acclaimed, but struggled to achieve the exposure many critics thought it deserved (Elder, 2007; Jacobs, 2011). Like many examples of accented cinema across the Western world (e.g., Marks, 2001; Naficy, 2001; Stam & Raengo, 2005), Floating Life reached a very specific international audience, excelling at international film festivals, but not necessarily at the box office. Floating Life appealed to a niche, film-going audience, and is no longer widely accessible for viewing (Byrnes, 1996). Without access to awards systems like the Oscars and the publicity and attention that awards garner, films like Floating Life risk being starved of publicity and distribution options (Chan, 2008). While Floating Life won a number of prizes, including the Silver Leopard Award at the Locarno International Film Festival and awards at the Hawaii, Hof, Locarno, Melbourne, Rotterdam, São Paulo, Seattle, and Singapore International Film Festivals, it made only AUD$141,138 at the box office. Therefore, while Floating Life is illustrative of alternative voices in both the Australian and multicultural film communities, and while it is widely-known by Australian film critics, its public recognition was limited.

Floating Life reflects director Clara Law’s family’s own experiences migrating to Australia, joining the many other Hong Kong-Chinese who settled there in the early 1990s (Byrnes, 1996). Law trained as a filmmaker in Hong Kong, where she worked before migrating to Australia in 1991 ahead of the British handover of Hong Kong to China. Despite its existential subject matter, including themes of alienation, depression, and intergenerational expectations, Floating Life was marketed as a comedy. The poster for the movie features the heads of the four members of the Chan family who come to live in Australia. In an image that recalls the White Australians walking on their heads in They’re a Weird Mob’s opening scene—which plays on the idea that the “land down under” is “upside-down”—the Chans are pictured at the top of the poster, looking down upon a made-up tableau where the Chan-father is squaring up to fight a large red kangaroo in the middle of a suburban street. This scene does not actually appear in the film, but is a stereotype of Australian past-times, one that illustrates the broader mythologies of Australian nationalism that the Chans must confront. The Chans’ upside-down faces literally turn the “land down under” right way up; it further suggests a story about outsiders looking in—or a story that is being told from the perspective of “outsiders-within” (Collins, 1986). As a critique of Australian identity, the Chans “drop in” to this inverted world. They are immediately different in the context of a White Australia, even though geographically they remain in the Asia-Pacific region.

Floating Life situates the audience’s gaze directly on the Chan family and the trials and tribulations of their integration. They mostly speak Cantonese, which is subtitled in English. The film’s entire focus is on the family unit, consigning the position of White Australians to the “periphery”, thereby reversing their insider-outsider status (Kim, 2009, p. 108). Father, mother, and brothers typically wear white sun hats and dark sunglasses. This choice of traveller-chic apparel makes the family look like perpetual tourists, also serving as a metaphor for their ongoing sense of alienation from and within Australian society. It also recalls Simpson et al.’s (2009) categorisation of the “tourist” in migrant representation, which describes a diasporic subject who can never be fully integrated into Australian culture. Unlike many other multicultural films, the Chans do not function to teach Australian characters a lesson (see Alex & Eve, 2015; Looking for Alibrandi, 2000). In fact, White Australian characters barely feature in Floating Life. Instead, the Chans’ story reveals the idiosyncrasies of Australian culture, making the culture seem strange from the perspective of new migrants looking in.

Unlike most multicultural films, the migration experience in Floating Life is portrayed as personal, complex, and specific to the Chan family, who are intersected by transnational and familial bonds (Jacobs, 2010). It is also shaped by the political reality of China regaining control of Hong Kong in 1997, which spurred significant migration from Hong Kong to Australia during the 1990s (Sherlock, 1997). Floating Life deals “with quandaries that are familiar to many migrants whose struggle to adjust to their new lives is characterised by a determination to break free of the past and the urge to maintain old connections” (Jacobs, 2010, p. 112). In the Australian context, and raising the issue of mono- versus multilingualism, the Chan family is made even more visible as migrants because of their Asian appearance, limited English, and commitment to speaking Cantonese in the broader context of English-speaking—“monolingual”—Australia, as authors from Bostok (1973) to Hordacre (2017) have theorised. The majority use of Cantonese despite English being Australia’s national language increases the Chans’ visibility linguistically, especially given the history of the White Australia policy. For example, one of the ways that the White Australia policy was enforced was by mandating a European-language dictation test, which was used as a mechanism to exclude any immigrants who were not seen as desirable future citizens (Reynolds & Lake, 2008)—the test could be given in English or, if officials chose, in another European language that the prospective immigrant may or may not have spoken. The Chans’ migrant journey and their experience of cultural integration and adaptation is one that bridges a divide between a past they had to leave, and their need to retain a connection to their cultural heritage. Floating Life is a classic Australian film about migration, as well as part of its multicultural heritage (Elder, 2007; O’Regan, 1996). It illustrates the prevalence of linguistic and cultural diversity in an Australian social context.

In contrast to many of Australia’s multicultural films, which focus on the lives of second-generation migrants (see Head On, 1998; Romper Stomper, 1992, 2018), Floating Life reveals some of the specifics of the migrant experience—missing home, being connected to multiple places and identities, and feeling like an outsider (Jacobs, 2010). The unsettledness or discomfort of the Chan family also reflects a growing political climate of anti-immigration sentiment in Australia at the time the film was made (for instance, the views of Far-Right politician, Pauline Hanson). While Floating Life does not directly address government immigration policy, Kim (2009) argues that the theme of home in the film is intersected by Australian policies of border protection. Floating Life suggests that “the hospitality offered to Asian migrants in Australia is haunted by the historical conditions in which Asian migration was encouraged in the years following the abolition of the White Australia policy” (Kim, 2009, pp. 108-109).

In the 1950s, Australia’s immigration program was extended to the Asian region, but in ways that revealed the extent to which discrimination associated with the White Australia policy was ongoing. In 1951, Australia adopted the Colombo Plan, which allowed students from Asian countries to study at Australian universities and, by 1957, immigration channels were opened to nations across Asia, but only to entrants deemed to be “distinguished and highly qualified”, amounting to just 100 entrants between 1957 and 1964 (Markus, 2003, p. 180). Even though immigration was increasing in rate and scope, documented limits to entry for non-White arrivals during this era show its management continued to be highly discriminatory; similar xenophobic sentiments continue to permeate portions of Australian society today.

In Floating Life, the Chan family’s sense of alienation is a metaphor more broadly for the historical discrimination against people from Asia by Australia’s migration system. Even though they have been allowed entry, they are not necessarily made to feel welcome. For instance, the Chan-daughter, Bing, who has lived longest in Australia, is positioned as both guest and host to her own family, causing the audience to rethink the binary nature of these roles; the film emphasizes the instability of the guest/host relationship. Kim (2009) argued that:

[h]ospitality in a national context is largely dependent upon the conceptualization of the nation as a home. … in spite of the conditional hospitality offered to Asian migrants in Australia, the Chan family is able to negotiate a tentative sense of home in Australia: their sense of home and belonging is not entirely contingent on the offering of hospitality by the nation in which they reside (p. 117).

Bing hosting her family in her own home serves as an allegory of the wider implications of nation-states hosting new arrivals. As Noble (2011) reminded us, Australia’s multiculturalism has often been imagined as made up of discrete cultural variances, or ranges of difference, that fit together as a set of “nationally defined cultures transplanted through migration” (pp. 829-830). Hage (1998) famously critiqued this system, which he called White multiculturalism, an assumption he argues is shared by proponents of multiculturalism and racists that Australia is first and foremost a White nation. Bing’s hosting role in Floating Life highlights the expectations placed upon both new arrivals and those who have been in Australia for longer, showing that the two roles rarely run in even alignment; this unevenness plays out in the film through Bing’s inability to bridge the worlds of her country of origin and her new home, Australia.

The different locations of the Chan family around the globe—Hong Kong, Australia, and Germany, where another daughter lives whom they speak to by phone—and their separation from their spiritual ancestors in Hong Kong, is less a depiction of the construction of Australian nationhood as it is a representation of the distance felt by many migrants from their former homes (Noble, 2011). The Chans’ geographical and spiritual distance also communicates a sense of shared and divided loyalty between the competing aspects of migrant lives: family, nation, and self (Elder, 2003; Jacobs, 2010; Stratton, 2011 ). Floating Life is an example of an alternative voice coming to light through Australian multiculturalism and migration. According to the idea of “doing adaptation” (Elliott, 2014), Floating Life shows that there are multiple and multilingual voices present in Australian society. Adapting and reframing an “Australian” narrative as a story of migration and multilingual identity, in this case foregrounding a story of migration from Hong Kong, largely told in Cantonese, opens new insights, interpretations, and concepts otherwise inaccessible in the theorising of Australian national identity. However, as constructions of multicultural nationhood, some voices are not necessarily as loud, or as well listened to, as others as demonstrated by Floating Life’s box office earnings: AUD$141,398.

La Spagnola

La Spagnola, which translates as “the Spanish woman”, is a comedy in Spanish and English. Famous Australian film reviewer, Margaret Pomeranz (2009) described it as unusual in the context of Australian cinema because it is what she called a “foreign-language Australian film” (n.p.). Like Floating Life, La Spagnola was Australia’s submission to the 74th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, but it was not accepted. The film made just AUD$477,197 at the Australian box office, which, like much other accented and intercultural cinema (Marks, 2000; Naficy, 2001), was a small amount compared to English-language films such as the adaptations of Mad Max (1985; 2015), or even Looking for Alibrandi (2000), which is about a family of Italian women (not dissimilar thematically to La Spagnola), but which is almost entirely in English.

La Spagnola was shot on location at the Caltex Refinery at Kurnell on the Botany Bay Peninsula south of Sydney. It is about Lola, who is Spanish, and her Spanish-Australian daughter, Lucia. It is the 1960s, and Lola, who has just discovered she is pregnant, has been left by her husband for a White Australian woman. Lola is portrayed as passionate, flamboyant, and exotic. Lucia, the daughter, is plain and bookish, desperate to fit in during an era of assimilation. Changing tack in the mid-twentieth century, assimilation rather than rejection was in force, grounded in the assumption that “immigrants could be culturally and socially absorbed” by a dominant White Australian society (Castles & Miller, 1993, p. 116). Mother and daughter must renegotiate their personal relationship against the backdrop of mid-twentieth century cultural conservatism. At the end of the film, both mother and daughter are far more socially integrated, reflected in Lola’s comparatively tamer demeanor and Lucia’s increased rebelliousness and zest. This suggests a creative interpretation or adaptation (Elliott, 2014) of contemporary multiculturalism, through a historical lens of assimilation: The characters achieve cultural sameness, rather than the right to individual expression. The film, released in 2001, also gestures towards critiques of multiculturalism, as the national discourse was moving into a post-multicultural phase in the early 2000s. Kymlicka (2010) defined post-multiculturalism as marked by the mischaracterisation of multiculturalism as a failed project; an exaggeration of the extent to which multicultural policies have been abandoned; and a misidentification of the actual limits or problems that multicultural discourse has encountered. Through its reference to the assimilation era, La Spagnola highlights, as well as questions, how far multiculturalism has come.

Writing about migrant cinema during the period that La Spagnola is set, Mischa Barr (2009) argued that anecdotal evidence suggests that continental cinemas, by which she means European-language films shown in Australia, “were predominantly patronised by educated, middle class Anglo-Australians, while foreign language popular cinema venues catered more specifically to migrant groups” (p. 1). By continental film, Barr means high-culture art films as opposed to foreign-language films, which, she argued, tended to be screened at migrant cinemas, and could include anything from popular international releases to subtitled Hollywood films. Thus, there is a separation between the sophisticated film-going elite and Australians with non-English speaking migrant backgrounds, “in part premised upon the severing of European ‘culture’ from European migrants” (Barr, 2009, p. 14). In contrast, La Spagnola, released in 2001, was very much received as an example of accented or intercultural cinema (Marks, 2000; Naficy, 2001), targeted and appreciated by a film-going elite, as remarked upon by Pomeranz (2009) in her reference to it as both an Australian and foreign-language film. Ironically, in the context of multicultural Australia, a foreign-language film is recast as high-culture.

By harking back to the 1960s in which La Spagnola is set, and when the “continental films” Barr describes came of age, La Spagnola crosses boundaries; it appeals to a “film-going crowd” in the early 2000s with an interest in cross-cultural narratives and multilingual texts, but also evokes the popular genres of comedy and romance and a retro aesthetic. Continental cinema helped to facilitate the move away from an understanding of Australia as a White, British, monocultural society (Barr, 2009, p. 14), but La Spagnola motivated a new discourse of multiculturalism at a time when an Australian film largely told in a language other than English was still an oddity. The film’s portrayal indicates more broadly that, while multiculturalism is a normative discourse and ideology in the Australian context (Lopez 2000)—accepted as fact that the population is both culturally diverse and tolerant of that diversity—multiculturalism as a national ethos is also popularly interpreted and conveyed through English. When it is not, this article argues, the intersection of multiculturalism and multilingualism gives rise to a reading of La Spagnola as an example of world cinema (Dennison & Song, 2006), crossing national and transnational boundaries to represent national/transnational/Australian/migrant subjects at the same time.

La Spagnola’s reception was predicated on its own identity as an artefact of cultural difference—non-English, or not entirely English-speaking, in contrast to the assimilatory White Australia or multicultural Australia in which it was set. La Spagnola is a nostalgic representation of early multicultural Australia, in which, through the migrants’ continued use of Spanish, (multi)cultural expression endured, and assimilation was deterred. As Fishman (2012; see also 1991; 2001) noted, one of the socio‐functions of language is to attain and augment intergenerational mother‐tongue transmission. Retaining the Spanish language in an Australian setting, as the characters do in La Spagnola, is therefore an example of resisting language shift.

The Finished People and Footy Legends

The Finished People (2003), set around the time of its release, was made on an ultra-low budget as part of a community project. The film production was derived from a series of video-making workshops that Vietnamese-Australian director Khoa Do taught in Cabramatta in Sydney’s south, a part of the city that has a low socioeconomic status. The film examines issues of homelessness, poverty, and drug use, and includes a diverse cast; local involvement in the film brought new stories and faces to the big screen, and promoted investment in the communities that the film represented. The Finished People dazzled critics; it relocated what began as a Community Cultural Development project from the suburbs to the “audiences of art-house cinema” (Brooks, 2008, p. 177), thus raising the project’s status among the cinema-going elite, and increasing its visibility among those in positions of power—a group who director Khoa Do was specifically hoping to address (Brooks, 2008). Therefore, by drawing “elite” support for the issues of an underrepresented community, The Finished People demonstrates there are benefits to filmmaking beyond the box office. Footy Legends (2006), the second film directed by Khoa Do, is, by contrast, a light-hearted comedy that channels Australia’s obsession with sport. It tells a redemption story through a social transformation narrative. Footy Legends only made a minimal return, AUD$382,243 worldwide, but it did solidify the successful career of the film’s star, Anh Do, who is a comedian, painter, TV personality, and the brother of the film’s director. Anh Do is also the author of a memoir, The Happiest Refugee (2010), in which he recounts his life as the child of a Vietnamese-Australian family struggling to make a living in Sydney. Do’s story is one of great achievement through hard work and social contribution, set against the backdrop of a family breakdown that is partially explained by the horrific circumstances that prompted the family’s migration to Australia.

An adaptation of the happy-go-lucky persona in Anh Do’s autobiography, the main character in Footy Legends, Luc Vu, is a young Vietnamese-Australian man, obsessed with rugby league, unemployed, and the sole caregiver of his kid-sister. When Luc is unable to fulfil his responsibilities, the welfare authorities—represented by well-known White-Australian actor Claudia Karvan—threaten to take his sister away. The choice of Karvan as actor here is significant, because her character stands in for the Australian Government’s institutions and political leadership, which is still predominantly White (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2018). To stop his sister being taken away, Luc reunites his high school rugby team and eventually wins a ute (Australia’s version of a flat-bed truck) in a local competition. The vehicle enables the men to start a rubbish disposal business, thus beginning a period of employment and greater contribution to Australian life and economy. Impressed by the family’s industriousness, the social worker (Karvan) does not remove the young sister, and the film ends with the suggestion of a flourishing cross-cultural romance between Luc Vu and Karvan’s character.

As well as subscribing to the notion of romantic love, Footy Legends perpetuates a philosophy of immigrant contribution, similar to that which Fleegler (2013) described in the American context in the 1950s and 1960s as a newfound recognition of migrant value. Footy Legends demonstrates how popular contribution-based attitudes remained in early-2000s Australia. Footy Legends checks the migrant-issues boxes of unemployment, family difficulties, and sporting prowess, and establishes Luc Vu and his teammates as firmly part of the Australian nation via the stereotypical theme of sport. Footy Legends also includes a number of so-called slapstick moments (Hansen, 1999; Simpson et al., 2009), reminiscent of They’re a Weird Mob and The Wog Boy.

Collins (2018) argues that Australian migration films are usually portrayed in either “comic or tragic modes” (p. 301). Migrant tragedies—which feature the inevitable downfall of the main characters—tend to be set in the past. Migrant comedies are most often set in the present, contemporary to their release, and paint multiculturalism in an aspirational light (Collins, 2018). Footy Legends is an example of the latter, in that Luc and his Vietnamese-speaking family encounter economic and social opportunity under the guise of a neo-liberal pursuit of progress. His desire to have a job is directly tied to his acceptance by Australian society. The film seems to suggest that if Luc tries hard enough, he will succeed, even though the reality, as noted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (2018), systemically disadvantages migrants such as Luc. Footy Legends represents the Vus as national, as well as migrant, subjects. They are Australian—and they aspire to become more so—as well as being linguistically different.

In contrast to Anh Do’s memoir, which is filled with Vietnamese-Australian friends and family, and unlike Floating Life’s focus on the Chans, in Footy Legends, Luc and his sister exist predominantly in a community of non-Vietnamese Australians. Enhancing Luc’s cultural difference is his racial identity in a sport (rugby league) that, within Australia, rarely attracts players of Vietnamese or, more generally, Asian backgrounds (Walter, 2020). As a result, the characters in Footy Legends represent individuals in their own right, with individual interests. Luc is obsessed with rugby, his sister is preoccupied with the care of her freshwater tortoise, and they both grieve for their mother, her death seemingly contributing to Luc and his sister’s ongoing fear of abandonment and social isolation. The film’s portrayal of Luc and his sister are positive, insofar as it gives the characters individual agency and universal relatability; yet it is also negative or simplistic, because the film represents the Vietnamese-Australian characters’ Otherness as non-specific and out-of-context, positioning them as representatives of a much larger but invisible group, again as outsiders-within (Collins, 1986). In this depiction, multicultural Australia is determined through the presence of a non-White Other and his family in the context of a majority White cast. Cultural difference, enhanced by language difference, is defined against the norm of White, English-speaking Australia.

While the approach of Footy Legends is much lighter than The Finished People, the two films similarly lack cultural specificity. The Finished People is a social realist film (touching on themes of drugs and homelessness) and Footy Legends is a feel-good comedy about a migrant son pulling himself up by the bootstraps. Despite the generic differences, the multicultural casts in both are a sign of what Yue (2000) and Brooks (2008) have both argued is a move towards post-ethnic representation in multicultural societies. Post-ethnicity is a representational strategy in relation to cultural diversity for adapting and subverting patronizing discourses of ethnic Otherness, and for re-negotiating directorial identity beyond the frame of ethnic filmmaker. The Finished People offered “a counter-vision to the Australian imagined community that has been anxiously reconfigured by assertions of a singular, homogenising national identity threatened by the different and the unassimilated” (Smaill, 2007, p. 43). Rather than portray limited or clichéd representations of characters based on or determined by their ethnicity, both films developed new ways of representing different, multiple, and complex identities through attention to diverse cultures, experiences, and languages.

Unfinished Sky

In Unfinished Sky, the migrant protagonist is also a woman; Tahmeena, an Afghani woman, escapes sexual-slavery in a rural Australian town and is rescued by a local farmer who falls in love with her, and later she with him. Where The Finished People is about a range of diverse characters, it is worth noting that Footy Legends represents a return to the mainstay of the male lead in the visual renegotiation of Australian national identity (Elder, 2007; Nile, 2001). In contrast, La Spagnola and Floating Life are predominantly about women, thus offering an alternative to the typical view of the nation portrayed on screen. This is particularly important in the Australian context, since even Screen Australia (2016)—the government funding and statutory body—has noted that Australia has a gender and diversity problem. It is notable that many of the multilingual films discussed in this article foreground women, and do so in ways that give agency to their characters despite their lack of English—not silencing or limiting the women by their accents (Ilott, 2018; Marks, 2001), a fact that further indicates that multiculturalism is intersected by both language and gender.

However, in the Unfinished Sky, while Tahmeena has most of her lines subtitled, thus enabling her to be understood by a mostly English-speaking audience, the film also portrays her as infantile rather than traumatised. That is, unlike the other two female-driven films discussed in this article, Tahmeena’s lack of English contributes to a child-like characterisation, reinforced, for example, when the farmer buys a child’s alphabet book to teach her English. The child-like representation is consistent with issues of power-imbalance between guest and host, new and old arrival. Hage (1998) referred to this power-imbalance as a White multicultural outlook that obscures alternate realities where White people are not the central occupiers of the national space. In the United States, Roediger (2005) argued that the term “new immigrants” is a “racially inflected” term that highlights the difference between “the whiter and longer established northern and western European migrants to the United States and … non-white Chinese and other ‘Asiatics’” (pp. 5-6). In Australia, as in other Western nations, the concept of  new immigrant  is similarly applied; in Unfinished Sky, the power difference is obvious in the positioning of the migrant subject as not only new, but child-like, because of her lack of English.

Over the course of Unfinished Sky, Tahmeena’s English improves, and in an unlikely romance-meets-crime-drama, she becomes the farmer’s lover. Beyond her language difference, however, Tahmeena’s cultural specificity as an Afghani woman in Australia is erased, especially given that the farmer’s attraction to her is explained by a photo that shows she is the spitting image of his late wife (who was not an Afghani refugee). This blurring effect, or ambivalence towards race or cultural background, is attributable to the fact that the film is an adaptation of a Dutch movie, De Poolse Bruid (“The Polish Bride”, 1998). Dutch actor Monique Hendrickx plays the rescued woman in both De Poolse Bruid and in Unfinished Sky, making the character’s identification as Polish or Afghani entirely arbitrary. Further, through the performance of broken-English and visual portrayals of “ethnicity”, Hendrickx’s portrayals in both films are examples of migrant-face (McCarthy, 2020). The result of the adaptation is to produce a stereotypical migrant or sex slave figure rather than a culturally-nuanced narrative of forced migration.

In the Dutch version of Unfinished Sky, which is called De Poolse Bruid, the farmer’s love interest is Polish. In the Australian version, she is Afghani and speaks Dari. These adaptation differences reflect the different contemporary events in each national context. The success of an adaptation relies on its relevance and meaning to its new audience; in this case, Unfinished Sky represents issues surrounding Australian multiculturalism and migration (Elliott, 2014). Hendrickx’s performance as both a Polish and an Afghani woman, respectively, serve as ongoing appropriation of cultural identities, and positions them as inferior to White culture. Unfinished Sky is also an example of an adaptation that accords more with its source text (De Poolse Bruid) than with the context to which it was transposed; in reality, it is likely that Tahmeena and her daughter would have been immediately deported under Australia’s strict policy of border protection, rather than humanely and speedily processed and allowed to stay in the country.

Multiculturalism Intersected by Gender and Race

The above representations of non-White female migrants to Australia are indeed problematic. Yet, to their credit, the female protagonists described above are at least given agency enough to speak in their own voices, which is in stark contrast to Australia Day’s (2017) portrayal of Lan Chang, a former sex-slave who speaks only in Chinese and is not translated or given subtitles, making her voice inaccessible to the film’s largely English-speaking audience. Further, while there are plenty of examples of nuanced Australian films depicting complex identities in multiple languages, there is also a long history of a lack of representation, or when representing Asian-Australian characters, doing so in stereotypical ways that drastically limit their agency by diminishing their power to speak and/or be translated and therefore understood by a majority English-speaking Australian audience. To give a brief example, in Red Dog (2011), which is not a foreign-language or international feature film, there are no Asian-Australian characters at all. Instead, when one of the characters babbles from heatstroke, he is diagnosed as “speaking Chinese,” which the scene seems to suggest (and as we might interpret as a racist dog whistle or undercurrent) is a diagnosable form of madness (Yue, 2000). Lack of or (mis)representation of non-White migrants in film is not unique to Australia. Film adaptations of White nationalist ideologies and immigration restrictions in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States in the early twentieth century (Lake & Reynolds, 2008), late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and other screen examples around the Western world, continue to echo historical lines of racial demarcation.

What this also demonstrates is that, while films such as those discussed are typically categorised as foreign-language films in Australia because they differ from the English-language norm (Stratton, 1999), globally, they may not be officially judged as foreign-language. In Australia, these films stand out as world movies, or alternative kinds of narratives to those that are marketed as classically Australian (often involving adaptations of White colonial history or mythology; McFarlane, 1993; O’Regan, 1996), simply because they demonstrate linguistic diversity. The versions of Australianness constructed by Floating Life, La SpagnolaFooty Legends, The Finished People, and Unfinished Sky are, as a result of the use of multiple languages, transnational as much as they are national. They are nuanced and diasporic representations, implying that what is multicultural exists in an ever-growing web of global cultural diversity and connection (Simpson et al., 2009). They are multicultural films, but they are also adaptations of migration and multiculturalism that foreground a transnational perspective through languages other than English.

Conclusion: An Ongoing Problem

Australia, like many multicultural nations, has an ongoing problem with diversity—and representing the extent of that diversity—in its national products, such as film. By using multiple languages, the films discussed in this article are examples of more inclusive visions of Australian national identity. They are accented and intercultural cinema (Marks, 2000; Naficy, 2001), and multicultural films (Stratton, 1999), and they are adaptations of multicultural policy (Elliott, 2014), creatively interpreting such policy as not just culturally—but linguistically-diverse. While the Oscars offer an opportunity to reach mass audiences, as this analysis demonstrates, being able to speak in one’s own language(s) or being translated to English for a majority English-speaking audience to understand, is the first step to being adequately represented in film culture. Australian non-English language films deconstruct the notion of a fixed Australian identity by invoking multiple languages and cultures. They reveal characters who are embedded in individual and family projects and whose identities are complex, constitutive, and intersectional (Crenshaw, 1989). They also reveal the many different communities that multicultural Australia gives rise to, nationally and transnationally, and the languages required to move between and within those different spaces.

The results of this analysis speak to the ongoing diversity problem on the Australian screen. As revealed in the textual analysis, when multiple languages are present in a film, it is far more likely for the film to be categorised as world cinema (Dennison & Song, 2006), or as a transnational representation of migration, rather than an adaptation of Australian nationhood told through a multicultural lens. It is far more likely that a film will be considered multiracial and multicultural when multiple languages are present. As interpretations or adaptations (Elliott) of multiculturalism as a concept, the films analysed in this article also reinforce the creative interpretation of multiculturalism as part of Australia’s national heritage as a contemporary, rather than historical, phenomenon. With the exception of La Spagnola, each film is set at the time it was released—a trend in multicultural filmmaking, which enables a culturally-diverse present to be contrasted with a fictional, exclusively White past.

In historical Australian multicultural film, migrant subjects are usually at the point of almost fitting in, often shown to be implicitly Australian, but still in contrast to a more established form of being Australian that is historically grounded or has the historicity of White or colonial versions of Australian nationhood (Elder, 2007). This article has shown that this is also the case for multilingual Australian films. Australian film has developed a permanent tradition of culturally-diverse filmmaking, while simultaneously and continually disproportionately favouring White Australia. The result is a contextualisation of multiculturalism as a form of national heritage within an overarching commitment to the idea of a White or English-speaking Australia, even as it becomes ever more dissonant with the experience of actually living in Australia. Evoking multiple languages in film is an expansion of multicultural discourse, but it is also a reminder that Australia is officially an English-speaking nation—and that for the time being, multilingual and multicultural portrayals in film remain outside the norm.


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A distinctive Use of R as a marker of Santomean identity

Volume 2(1): 2018

MARIE-EVE BOUCHARD, Concordia University


This paper examines the ideologies that surround the use of rhotics (or r-sounds) in the Santomean variety of Portuguese. This emerging variety spoken in São Tomé and Príncipe diverges from the European and Brazilian Portuguese norms and shows great variability in its use of rhotics. More specifically, Santomeans often use a strong-R in positions that require a weak-r in other Portuguese varieties (Bouchard, 2017). I argue that this distinctive use of rhotics is becoming a marker of Santomean national identity.  Through the use of sociolinguistic interviews, I examine where this new variety of Portuguese is emerging from, and how Santomeans view their distinctive use of rhotics. Results demonstrated that the use of strong-R is associated with younger Santomeans who grew up after the independence of the country (in 1975), and who are starting to show pride in their national variety of Portuguese.


Cet article examine les idéologies entourant l’utilisation des sons R en portugais santoméen. La variété émergente de portugais parlée à São Tomé-et-Principe diverge de la norme brésilienne et européenne et fait preuve d’une grande variabilité quant à l’utilisation des sons R. Plus précisément, les Santoméens utilisent souvent le R-fort dans des positions qui exigent un r-faible dans d’autres variétés de portugais (Bouchard, 2017). Je considère que cette utilisation distincte des sons R est en train de devenir un trait caractéristique qui marque l’identité nationale santoméenne. Par l’entremise d’entrevues sociolinguistiques, j’examine l’origine de cette nouvelle variété de portugais et la vision des Santoméens vis-à-vis de leur utilisation des sons R. Les résultats montrent que l’utilisation du R-fort est associée aux jeunes santoméens nés après l’indépendance du pays (donc après 1975) et qui démontrent une plus grande fierté de leur variété nationale de portugais.

Keywords: Language ideologies, rhotics, Santomean Portuguese, national identity, youth.


São Tomé and Príncipe is characterized by its great linguistic diversity, and has been called a “labyrinth and laboratory of languages” (translated from Hagemeijer, forthcoming). During the sixteenth century, three native creoles formed on the islands: Forro, Angolar, and Lung’Ie.i According to Hagemeijer (in press), these creoles were the most widely spoken languages on the islands until the beginning of the twentieth century.  The Portuguese language had been restricted to a small group of Portuguese nationals. This sociolinguistic picture changed at the end of the nineteenth century due to the massive arrival of contract laborers coming from different regions of Africa, causing Portuguese to become a lingua franca. Consequently, a linguistic shift from creoles to Portuguese emerged in São Tomé and Príncipe. This shift intensified in the 1960s with the rise of the nationalist movement, the generalized access to education, and the spread of the parental practice of forbidding children to speak creole. When the country became independent in 1975, Portuguese became a symbol of national unity and was more widespread in use. Additionally, there were several other factors that contributed to disfavoring the use of the creoles on the islands: greater social mobility (related in part to Santomean immigration to Portugal), greater access to education and means of communication in Portuguese (e.g., television, Internet), and the absence of language politics in favor of the creoles. Currently, children are growing up with the local variety of Portuguese as their first (and often only) language. This emerging variety of Santomean Portuguese is central to the current study and provides an opportunity to investigate an emerging Portuguese variety in Africa, and the significance of language ideologies in the choice of language and in national identity.

One of the most salient variables that distinguishes Santomean Portuguese from other varieties of Portuguese is the use of rhotics (r-sounds). In European and Brazilian Portuguese, the distribution of rhotics is determined by syllable structure (Mateus & d’Andrade, 2000). The ‘weak-r’ [ɻ, ɾ, Ø] is required when the rhotic is the second element in an onset consonant cluster (e.g., branco “white”). The ‘strong-R’ [r, ʀ, x, ɣ, χ, ʁ, h, ɦ] is required word-initially (e.g., rato“rat”), and, word-medially in syllable-initial position, if the preceding syllable ends with a coda consonant (e.g., honrado“honored”). In coda and word-final positions, these varieties of Portuguese have variable or optional realizations of rhotic variants. Intervocalically, there is a phonemic contrast of rhotics, in words such as carro “car” and caro “expensive”. This means that the use of the strong-R (carro) or the weak-r (caro) affects how the word is perceived by listeners, as it can lead to multiple meanings.

In contrast to this standard distribution of rhotics, some Santomeans pronounce a strong-R in phonetic environments that require a weak-r in other varieties of Portuguese. The following example compares the pronunciation in Santomean Portuguese (STP) to European Portuguese (EP):

STP:     tu    és    brasileira (pronounced [bʁazileiʁɐ])?
EP:       tu    és    brasileira (pronounced [bɾɐzilɐjɾɐ])?
ENG:    you are Brazilian?
‘Are you Brazilian?’

The current paper focuses on the distinctive use of rhotics in Santomean Portuguese, the significance of the language change underway in São Tomé, and the ideologies that surround this change. The main objectives of this paper are to discuss linguistic differentiation (Irvine & Gal, 2000) in São Tomé, in a bid to show how the Santomean Portuguese variety has been erased from public discourse, and to examine how the use of the strong-R has become, and continues to be, a marker of belonging and national identity for young Santomeans.


São Tomé and Príncipe stands out among other Portuguese-speaking African countries, as Portuguese is the first language of the great majority of the population. It is spoken by 98.4% of citizens (INE, 2012). It is the official language of the country, of the government, media, and school, and of everyday life.

Lorenzino (1996) was one the first linguists to note that the Portuguese variety spoken in São Tomé and Príncipe varied from its target language, European Portuguese. Since then, few studies have looked at Santomean Portuguese. Most research on Santomean Portuguese is related to morphosyntactic and syntactic features (Figuereido, 2010; Gonçalves, 2012, 2015); whereas, research on the linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, phonetics, and phonology of the language variety are scarce (Brandão, 2016; Bouchard, 2017; Christofoletti, 2011).

Santomean Portuguese varies from Brazilian, European, and other African varieties of Portuguese, especially because of the influence of creoles (Afonso, 2009; d’Apresentação, 2013) and their distinctive use of rhotics. Previous studies from Bouchard (2016, 2017) indicate that this distinctive use of rhotics in Santomean Portuguese (i.e., the use of a strong-R in weak-r positions) is part of a linguistic change underway in São Tomé. Based on the apparent-time construct (Bailey et al., 1991; Bailey, 2004), Bouchard (2017) showed that younger Santomeans use strong-R the most (54.8%), and older Santomeans the least (5.9%) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The use of strong-R according to age and speaker, based on percentage
(Adapted from Bouchard, 2017, p. 262)

To my knowledge, no previous studies have investigated language shift (from creoles to Portuguese) and language change (regarding the use of rhotics) in São Tomé from the perspective of language ideologies. Language ideology is the link between forms of talk and social structures; it is “the cultural system of ideas about social and linguistic relationships, together with their loading of moral and political interests” (Irvine, 1989, p. 255). In a linguistic community, that is a group of people who use the same linguistic code and signs, language practices are measured against those of the dominant group (Bourdieu, 1982). In the case of São Tomé and Príncipe, the linguistic practices have been measured against and compared to speakers of European Portuguese during the five centuries of colonial rule. European Portuguese was, and may still be, considered to be the standard variety. It is viewed as the “good” way of speaking Portuguese and the linguistic objective to attain; whereas, in contrast, creoles were believed to be “bad.” This encounter between European Portuguese, Santomean Portuguese, and the creoles of São Tomé will now be examined in terms of a language ideology of differentiation (Irvine & Gal, 2000).


In this study, I examine the emerging variety of Portuguese spoken in São Tomé and Príncipe. I discuss how the distinctive use of rhotic in Santomean Portuguese is being associated with national identity, and to santomensidade “Santomean-ness.” The main questions addressed herein are: What is the role of language ideologies in language change in São Tomé? How are language ideologies interrelated with national identity and rhotic use in Santomean Portuguese? The answers to these questions are important given that studies about language use and practices in São Tomé and Príncipe are scarce, and that the Santomean distinctive use of rhotics is a linguistic innovation currently emerging. This paper demonstrates how the use of rhotics is becoming a marker of the young, post-independence, Santomeans, and it contributes to the existing literature regarding the use of certain linguistic features vis-à-vis identity formation and nation building. This is achieved by focusing on the Santomeans’ language ideologies in terms of their use of rhotics in relation to their speakers and identity. Moreover, the semiotic processes of Irvine and Gal (2000) are utilized to shed light on the Santomean sociolinguistic reality and show how the Santomean Portuguese variety spoken by the middle class has been erased from public discourse. Irvine and Gal (2000) suggest that people construct their ideological representations of social and linguistic difference through the use of three semiotic processes: iconization, recursivity, and erasure.

First, Irvine and Gal (2000) describe the process of iconization as being a transformation of the relationship between linguistic varieties or features and the social images they map onto: “Linguistic features that index social groups or activities appear to be iconic representations of them, as if a linguistic feature somehow depicted or displayed a social group’s inherent nature or essence” (p. 37). The second semiotic process in the construction of ideologies and differentiation is called fractal recursivity, and it “involves the projection of an opposition, salient at some level of relationship, onto some other level” (Irvine & Gal, 2000, p. 38). In other words, the contrast that exists in some opposition between groups or linguistic varieties reappears (or persists) at some other levels. Finally, erasure is the process by which ideology renders a group or a sociolinguistic phenomenon invisible (Hachimi, 2012; Hollington, 2016; Irvine & Gal, 2000). It is a form of “forgetting, denying, ignoring, or forcibly eliminating those distinctions or social facts that fail to fit the picture of the world presented in ideology” (Gal, 2005, p. 27). This tripartite framework will be used to access and understand the emerging variety of Portuguese, which I suggest is being created by a growing number among the younger generations who take pride in their Santomean and African identity.


The methodology chosen for studying locally embedded language use, the role of language use in the construction of social and national identity in a multilingual society, and the language ideologies that surround language use included: observation, field notes, and individual sociolinguistic interviews. The fieldwork for the data was conducted mainly in the city of São Tomé, the capital of São Tomé and Príncipe, and its surroundings between June 2015 and March 2017. The 56 participants included in this study were Santomeans, born and raised on São Tomé Island, and who are still residing in the capital or its surroundings. This study is based on roughly 46 hours of tape-recorded sociolinguistic interviews (Becker, 2013; Labov, 1984; Tagliamonte, 2006) from 48 adults (20-73 years old) and eight teenagers (12-18 years old) (Table 1).


Education Level

Age group




High school













































Table 1: Participants in this study

Interviews with adults lasted between 33 and 82 minutes, and interviews with teenagers lasted between 24 and 30 minutes (with the exception of one interview that lasted an hour). Interviews were recorded after I had spent a period of time (starting during the third month, more precisely) in São Tomé and getting to know more about the culture, in terms of their ethnic groups, religious practices, traditional dances, etc. This cultural immersion allowed me to ensure that the questions were relevant to Santomeans. During the interview, I elicited comments on language, ethnicity, identity, and localness to arrive at a clearer picture of the ideologies underlying linguistic choices and perceptions within the speech community. Interviews were conducted in Portuguese, but only the translation of excerpts are provided in this paper.

I also present a concrete example, a narrative description of a Santomean named Célia with whom I discussed the used of rhotics. By examining more deeply the case of Célia, I aim to understand in a more holistic way the experience of one speaker. This includes information about the complexities regarding one’s social network, background, and education, among other things. Although generalizations from one observed case to all other cases is not possible or necessarily desired, this brief case study is an opportunity to derive broader principles and observations of relevance regarding ideologies about pronunciation of rhotics in Santomean Portuguese (cf. Duff, 2008).

Language Ideologies and Linguistic Differentiation in São Tomé

As indicated earlier, I applied Irvine and Gal’s (2000) tripartite semiotic processes to discuss how language ideologies might contribute to language change. Specifically, these three processes made it possible to examine how Santomeans map their understanding of linguistic varieties to people, how language ideologies are constructed among the speakers of the island of São Tomé, and what are some of the consequences of this mapping.

Iconization: European Portuguese, Creole Languages, and their Social Images

Iconization served as a means to examine the mapping of language use onto its speakers.  During colonial times in São Tomé, although the Portuguese were in the minority, they held the position of power. They formed the highest social class on the island, had a higher level of education, and had greater economic means. Over time, their variety of Portuguese came to index their social identity; European Portuguese became a marker of powerful, educated, and elegant people. Santomeans were aware that their native languages, the creoles, were considered to be inferior to European Portuguese. This ideology of inferiority was in part transmitted to Santomeans by the Portuguese colonizers who did not even consider the creoles to be “real” languages, but rather mere dialects of Portuguese. As one participant commented:

They didn’t call it creole, but rather dialect, because Portuguese made sure to minimize creole, they would say that it was only a dialect of Portuguese – which is not true. (Tomás, 50 years old)

In this excerpt, dialect does not refer to a variety of Portuguese, but rather to a language variety that is considered to be inferior to the Portuguese language. In fact, the creoles were spoken by enslaved Africans and their descendants, whom the Portuguese considered inferior. These ideas of inferiority about the languages were then transferred to the speakers of those languages. The creoles became associated with backwardness, savagery, stupidity, and inferiorityii, and these ideologies surrounding creoles were not only transmitted by the Portuguese, but also between Santomeans themselves. If Santomean parents wanted their children to “become someone”, they forbade their children to speak creole:

They were forbidden [to speak creole] because there was a feeling that one who speaks creole is poor, backward, and that creole spoils Portuguese [han han], that’s what they used to say. (Tomás, 50 years old)

Our children have to learn to speak well, to speak well Portuguese, like if fine people, good people, educated people had to speak Portuguese, that it is the language of what. . .the right language, right, the correct language, the creole is seen as a person who is backward, who doesn’t know Portuguese and only speaks creole, I think they thought or think that by speaking creole, a child won’t be able to learn Portuguese well, [Hum. . .like if. . .] yeah, one would interfere with the other, and they wanted their children, well. . .hey, my son has to speak Portuguese well, he has to be someone, he has to be a fine person, he has to express himself well, I think that’s what it is. (Natália, 33 years old)

Thus, European Portuguese became an icon of people with a higher socioeconomic status, and the creoles became an icon of the people from with a lower socioeconomic status. The ideologies surrounding those languages help us understand the ongoing loss of the creoles in São Tomé, as Santomeans gave more value to Portuguese and favored the learning of Portuguese over creoles.

Fractal Recursivity: Settings and Varieties

In the case of São Tomé, the framework for understanding linguistic difference at one level, for example the difference between Portuguese and creole languages in terms of linguistic value and recognition within the society, served to construct differences at other levels, such as linguistic varieties between the city and the plantations. This was achieved through Irvine and Gal’s second semiotic process: fractal recursivity. As Gal (2005) wrote, “fractal recursions are repetitions of the same contrast but at different scales” (p. 27), meaning that the contrast can be reproduced by projecting it onto broader or more narrow comparisons.

According to the 2014-2015 Instituto Nacional de Estatísticas (National Statistical Office) survey results, 66.6% of Santomeans live in urban areas, while 33.4% live in rural areas (MICS, 2014). When talking about language during my fieldwork and interviews, Santomeans often highlighted the difference between the variety of Portuguese spoken in the city and the one spoken in what they called the roças “plantations” (i.e., rural setting). All participants (urban and rural) commented that the variety of Portuguese spoken in the city is “better” than the variety spoken in the plantations:

The first difference I see is the way they speak. [Yeah?] Yes, people in the city speak better than people here in the plantation because, as you know, the environment here is closed. (Carlos, 28 years old, external informant living in rural areaiii)
M-E:    So, on the island, where do you think that people speak better Portuguese?  Where is Portuguese better spoken?
Zé:       In the center of the capital.
M-E:    Why?
Zé:       Because, well, all this, Portuguese, was centralized there and it’s the peak of the country, the head of the country, the president, the prime minister, I don’t know, I don’t know, the best quality stayed there, so it means Portuguese was mainly centralized in the center of the capital then in the other parts of the country, that’s why the most adequate Portuguese is there. (Zé, 52 years old, external informant living in rural area)

There is a higher number of creole speakers living outside the center of the capital, especially in the district of Caué (the southern part of the island, where Zé lives), who speak creole more frequently than those in the center of the capital. For this reason, the influence of the creole languages on the rural variety of Portuguese is believed to be greater than on the city variety. Moreover, people from the city are not only seen as speaking better Portuguese, but also as being more educated, more economically comfortable, better dressed, etc. People from the plantations, on the other hand, are seen as speaking “bad” Portuguese, as having a lower level of education, as being bad-tempered, etc. In this example of fractal recursivity, it is possible to see the reproduction of the contrast (Portuguese/creoles) onto another level (urban/rural).

Erasure of the Speech of a Growing Middle Socioeconomic Class: The Emerging Variety of Santomean Portuguese

Finally, the process of fractal recursion allows for erasure. This process makes it possible to examine elements that do not fit into the ideology of contrast that was constructed. In the case of São Tomé, what is being erased, or rather, ignored, is the speech of the middle-class Santomeans. The middle-class Santomeans are those who have a certain level of schooling (at least high school), a certain economic comfort (a job, a house, perhaps a car, etc.), but who do not necessarily turn towards Europe to find their social and linguistic models. They differ from the higher-class Santomeans in that they are not at the apex of the social pyramid; for example, they are not necessarily members of traditionally important families in the country, nor have they lived abroad (although some may have studied abroad and come back), and they earn money locally (i.e., in dobras, not in euros). Thus, Santomeans, and their speech, do not fit the old stereotypes which consist of dichotomies of European Portuguese/creoles, urban/rural, and rich/poor. The Santomeans that I spoke to only discussed their variety when I asked specific questions, such as “Is Santomean Portuguese different from European Portuguese?” or “Which variety do you prefer: Santomean, European, or Brazilian Portuguese?”. Otherwise, they always preferred talking about creoles, or about what they consider to be “bad” Portuguese (with creole features) and “good” Portuguese (that corresponds to Portuguese grammar and the European standard). I believe that it is in this space, this process of erasure, that Santomean Portuguese is emerging. As mentioned earlier, one linguistic feature that is characteristic of the Santomean emerging class is the use of the strong-R instead of the weak-r in some positions of the word. Most Santomeans are not aware of the use of rhotics, as being typical of their variety of Portuguese, but several informants cite it as a local feature. Furthermore, the social facts show that this particular use of the rhotics indexes the youth and the post-independence period.

In São Tomé, some of the consequences of language ideologies are the deprecation of the creole languages, the growing loss of the creoles, and the prejudices attached to creole speakers; although, this latter part seems to be slowly changing. Moreover, examining the rhotics as used and pronounced in Santomean Portuguese and the ideologies that surround their pronunciation reinforce these consequences.


More than any other feature, for non-Santomeans, the pronunciation of rhotics iconically indexes Santomean Portuguese. On the one hand, most, if not all, lower socioeconomic status Santomeans I interviewed and questioned about pronunciation of rhotics in their variety of Portuguese were not aware of this linguistic difference. On the other hand, higher socioeconomic status Santomeans who studied or worked abroad and who had come into contact with Portuguese or Brazilians had a greater metalinguistic awareness of this feature (Silverstein 1979, 1981). Here is an excerpt from my interview with Pilar who discusses rhotics in Santomean Portuguese.

But I think, I think that we have a particularity, we don’t differentiate the R when it’s one or two. [Hum. . .] Yeah, I think there is only one pronunciation. [Yeah. . .] Yeah. . . .Just like we say “car” (carro) the same way we say “cheap” (barato), for example. (Pilar, 44 years old)

Pilar refers to the phonemic contrast of rhotics. She suggests that there might be only one way to pronounce rhotics in Santomean Portuguese. To her, the word carro “car” (underlying strong-R, spelled with two <r>’s) and barato “cheap” (underlying weak-r, spelled with one <r>) can both be pronounced with the same type of rhotic, i.e., a strong-R. In this excerpt, Pilar pronounced both words with a strong-R, although barato “cheap” is usually pronounced [bɐɾatu] in European and Brazilian Portuguese. This suggests that there is a merger between strong-R and weak-r and that the phonemic contrast in intervocalic position might not exist anymore.  Interestingly, Pilar is one of the participants in this study that uses strong-R in weak-r positions more frequently. In order to understand why her use of strong-R is so distinctive, I questioned her about the Santomean accent (referring here to the rhotics) and identity:

M-E:    And the adults, you think they keep their accent unintentionally, or because they want to, as a form of identity?
Pilar:    The adults? That. . .there I think it’s like this. . .I think. . .that. . .when. . .if maybe they want to show that they’re in Portugal, things like that, they adopt the accent from there, but when not. . .at least in my case, nothing influenced me.

In Pilar’s opinion, some Santomeans adopt the European Portuguese accent in order to show that they are in or have been to Portugal. This certainly reflects the higher status attributed to European Portuguese. However, more subtly, Pilar’s explanation of the adaptation to European Portuguese also implies a certain lack of authenticity, when she proudly says that nothing influenced her speech.

In fact, speaking Santomean Portuguese is about being African rather than Portuguese or creole. It is important to note that Santomeans from the middle and lower socioeconomic class identify as African first, and not as Portuguese:

M-E:    Do Santomeans feel African?
Elzo:    Yes! We feel African, we identify with Africa, we feel, we feel African, we feel African. . . . And it’s a pride, right, to be African, right.  (Elzo, 50 years old)

As seen above, Pilar did not consider the distinctive use of rhotics to be problematic; however, it was distinct for most of the other participants who were aware that the Santomean distribution of rhotics was not identical to that of European Portuguese. In an interview with Marcelo, a 45-year-old Santomean who has also spent time abroad, other perspectives on rhotics can be seen:

M-E: One thing I noticed the first day I was here is the way that. . .that you pronounce
your R, but not everyone does it.
Marcelo: (Laughs!) Carregam nos R!
M-E: Yeah, you noticed?
Marcelo: (Laughs!) It’s possible, I have I think I have this problem of carregar nos R too. . . . I think it’s a bit of a defect of language.

Santomeans usually refer to the distinctive use of strong-R as carregar nos R. Carregar in this sense means “to turn stronger or more intense.” Marcelo considers this distinctive pronunciation of rhotics to be a “problem” and a “defect of language.” This represents the most common opinion expressed regarding the distribution of rhotic variants in the Portuguese spoken by Santomeans. However, it is important to point out how this idea that Santomean Portuguese is different in pronunciation comes from contact with speakers of other varieties of Portuguese. During my stay in São Tomé, I never heard a Santomean discussing, mocking, or criticizing another Santomean’s pronunciation of rhotics, except for a few who had lived abroad.

Some participants have tried different techniques to “remove” this pronunciation, as Alberto, a 32-year-old Santomean who studied in Brazil, did:

Alberto: I notice that I make my R stronger. . . . I tried, I did some exercises with friends who know about diction to try to remove this R, but then I stopped (laughs) and I gave up. . .
M-E: You thought it was something that needed to be corrected?
Alberto: I think so. . .I think so because. . .
M-E: Still today, you think this?
Alberto: I think that if it was easier to correct, I would have corrected it, but. . .because it’s something that I tried once, and twice, and it needed a bit more work, I didn’t insist on changing, if it was easy to change yes, but it’s not something that for me. . .it doesn’t bother me that much, it’s something that, you know, is kinda different.

Alberto knows there is something “different” about his pronunciation. He tried to change it but quit because it demanded too much effort. He now seems to accept the way he speaks.  However, this was not the case for all Santomeans interviewed. In the next section, I turn to the case of a young Santomean who felt discriminated against because of her use of rhotics.


Célia, a 27-year-old Santomean journalist, shared her views and experiences regarding her pronunciation of rhotics. Célia grew up in Riboque, a lower- to middle-class neighborhood that is centrally located in the city of São Tomé. Many people of lower socioeconomic status live there. In this area, the houses, which are made of wood and covered with a simple corrugated iron sheet, are very close one to another. The streets are busy, loud, full of kids running around, and people sit by their door to look at people walking by. Célia grew up in this area with her mother and her siblings. She has spent her entire life in São Tomé City, where she attended primary school, high school, and university. She has never travelled outside the island of São Tomé. According to Célia, her social environment and origin explain her pronunciation of rhotics:

I come from a very poor social circle and I didn’t have any contact with people who speak Portuguese from Portugal [yeah] so my mom speaks like this, my sisters speak like this, people close to me, my family speaks like this, my partner does not though because he lived in Cuba for a long time [ok] so his pronunciation changed and everything, so I think that Santomeans who are Santomeans, especially the ones from a low social circle, a lower social class, that. . .who never traveled outside São Tomé, who never had any other kind of interaction and all, direct interaction [yes] they talk like me.

Interestingly, Célia links this distinctive pronunciation of rhotics to Santomean identity (“Santomeans who are Santomeans”), more specifically to Santomeans from a lower socioeconomic status who have not interacted with speakers of Portuguese who are not Santomean. For the purposes of clarity, there is a need to nuance Célia’s words. In my opinion, Célia is part of the growing Santomean middle class. Her mother used to be a palaiê (seller at the market). Eventually, her mother became a small business owner and she now earns a better living. Célia has a high level of education, even though she did not study abroad – an opportunity which is deemed more prestigious. She has a good job working as a journalist. She acknowledges in the interview that her life now is better than when she was a child. I consider her to be part of the emerging middle-class of São Tomé and Príncipe, and yet, regardless of her qualification and status, Célia is still questioned about her identity based on her pronunciation.

When Célia and I met, she said she was a bit nervous because she thought I wanted to talk to her about her “pronunciation”. I was a bit surprised, so I asked why. She answered that she had been criticized on the Facebook page of the web-journal she works for because of her pronunciation:

It was a Brazilian man, he commented that the journalist had a French accent. After, other people who are Santomeans said no, that she doesn’t have a French accent, she is Santomean. . . . Another said that I speak like this because of our creole Forro [yeah] but another came and answered that I speak like this simply because I speak badly (laughs).

After this interview with her, I found on Facebook the discussions she referred to during the interview (Figure 2).

Figure 2. First excerpt from a Facebook page discussing Célia’s speech

M: The reporter needs to go back to school, she speaks very badly.
H: Why does the reporter have a French accent? Very weird.
J: We Santomeans have this “half”-French accent because of our “dialect.”
H: I haven’t seen other interviewees with an accent like the one of the reporter. Well. . . . If you’re from there and say that’s how it is, who am I to think it’s not.
A: French accent? Since when does our creole remind people of a French accent?  I’ve been living in France for 8 years, and sorry but I know the two accents very well and they are totally different.

It is unclear where the first person (M) is from, but the second one (H) is Brazilian, and the two answering (J and A) are Santomeans. In this Facebook interaction, the different people discussed the quality of Célia’s language (“she speaks very badly”, “why does the reporter have a French accent? Very weird”), and the origin of her accent. One person asks why she has a French accent. One Santomean suggests that it is because of the influence of Forro on Portuguese, and another Santomean who lives in France disagrees and comments that Forro and French accents are totally different. This was the first time that Célia was criticized because of her speech. However, a few days later, people commented on Célia’s accent again on Facebook (Figure 3), and this time she felt very offended:

What really offended me is something from two weeks ago, I did an interview with a lady and then I did a story about the STP Music Award, you know, the contest?  [Yes, yes.]  I did an interview about that and a video, and the Facebook page of the STP Music Award shared the news and somebody saw it, a lady even a young lady, she commented “this journalist, gee, for heaven’s sake, she didn’t do justice to this story, she has phonetic deviation, she urgently needs speech therapy”, I saw that and I was so so hurt, I was really hurt, I was even going to write something to send the person but because I also show my colleague first, he said “Ah [Célia], don’t do that you’ll start an argument, so don’t do it”, I breathed deeply and I let it go but since then I’m so worried I spend my time on the Internet looking for exercises for phonetic deviation, I saw something about putting a pen in your mouth, saying “ma ma mi mi mi” (laughs) for real I saw that (laughs).

Figure 3. Second excerpt from a Facebook page discussing Célia’s speech

G: This journalist, for heaven’s sake, she does not have what is needed for this news report, good public speaker skills, on the contrary, she suffers from an important phonetic deviation, she urgently needs good intensive speech therapy.
N: I loved this a lot.

The person who wrote this comment is a Santomean living abroad. She criticized Célia for her “bad public speaking skills” and her “phonetic deviation,” and because of this pronunciation, G. does not consider her qualified to be a journalist. This comment highlights how negative the ideologies surrounding this pronunciation of the rhotics can be.

These comments were hurtful to Célia, as they criticized her speech, her sense of personhood, but also herself as a journalist; they made her insecure about her accent. She now feels ashamed of her pronunciation, and would prefer to speak as the Portuguese do, as illustrated in the following three excerpts:

I didn’t know I admit that I didn’t know that I spoke like this [ok] I really didn’t have any idea that I spoke like this, I only realized it when I started to work at STP News.iv I’m ashamed of the way I speak right now, I’m ashamed. I think I prefer to speak the way the Portuguese speak just to see if people will leave me alone, but I can’t keep it up.

Célia’s position as a public figure makes her more exposed to criticism. It is this criticism that made her self-conscious of her “accent,” of which she is now “ashamed.” She would prefer to speak European Portuguese not because she likes it better but rather to stop criticisms about her accent. Célia also reports that Santomeans who are abroad suffer from criticisms as well when in Portugal:

My colleague, we were talking about pronunciation again the day before yesterday, he went to Portugal at the end of last year to study, to do his bachelor, and he said that his Portuguese teacher said that we Santomeans speak in a very weird way, but the tone that she used to say that, he didn’t like it [yeah]. He felt that she was belittling the way we speak [yeah]. The teacher made him so mad, but not as much as another friend who has been living in Portugal for a while did and who speaks like Portuguese do [hum. . .]. He was surprised by how my friend speaks, in a way that made my friend really angry because on top of telling him that he speaks differently, he also told him that he makes his R much stronger in a weird way [ok]. My friend got more upset with this colleague who is Santomean exactly because he is Santomean.  He used to speak like this before getting out of here, and only because he’s there now he speaks like the Portuguese do (laughs). He’s acting like that [yeah].  I don’t know, people tend to do that, right.

Célia’s friend disliked the teacher’s comments regarding his speech, but he disliked it even more when the same comment came from a Santomean colleague. Why would a comment from another Santomean be more frustrating than from someone who is Portuguese? It is as if this pronunciation was a marker of santomensidade, of being Santomean. In that case, the friend’s comment was an act of inauthenticity. Rejecting Santomean pronunciation is akin to denying his roots, a part of his culture, a part of his santomensidade.

In the excerpts from this case study, we have seen that Célia links the use of strong-R to a shared sense of national identity and socioeconomic status. However, it is not so straightforward, as some Santomeans from a higher socioeconomic status who have lived abroad (Pilar and Marcelo presented above, for instance) do “draw out” the R, while other Santomeans who have never travelled outside the island do not. Even so, Santomeans, like Célia, and non-Santomeans, such as Célia’s friend’s teacher in Portugal, associate this feature with being Santomeans. I suggest that this emerging feature in the speech of Santomean is becoming a marker of Santomean Portuguese, and at the same time, of santomensidade.


The information obtained from the interviews make it possible to draw several conclusions in relation to the questions posed in this study. The first question is concerned with the perspective of Santomeans toward language use and change. Irvine and Gal’s (2000) semiotic processes were used to look at the Santomean reality and showed how Portuguese became associated with being the “good language” and creoles, with being the “bad languages.” With such beliefs, parents prefer to socialize their children in Portuguese, hoping to offer their children a better future. This may explain in part why the majority of Santomeans speak Portuguese today and why the use of creole languages is receding. This iconization process is reproduced within the Santomean variety of Portuguese, with people considering the speech of urban Santomeans (which is less influenced by its contact with creole) to be “better” than the speech of rural Santomeans. In the narratives of the interviewees, little attention has been given to their own variety of Portuguese, which I suggest emerged covertly between the creoles and European Portuguese. The speech of the Santomean middle-class does not fit into the well-known dichotomies from the past, but it is this variety of Portuguese that is unconsciously being attached to national identity.

This brings me to the second research question, how are language ideologies interrelated with national identity and use of rhotics in Santomean Portuguese? Results from this study show that the rhotics are a feature that can be mapped onto socioeconomic status and national distinctiveness, and that using a strong-R in weak-r positions is a marker of santomensidade. The older generations, the ones born before the independence of the country, use strong-R the least and tend to consider Santomean Portuguese to be errado “wrong”. Conversely, the younger generations use strong-R the most and show pride in their variety of Portuguese as illustrated in the following two excerpts:

Well, many people say that the right Portuguese is the one spoken in Portugal. . . . [Hum hum. . .Do you agree with that?]  No, I don’t agree.  [Why?]  Because I even noticed that they don’t speak that well there. . . .[Ok.]  I think people believe that the best Portuguese is spok. . .is the one spoken there [Hum hum. . .] because it comes from there. . .we speak Portuguese, but it doesn’t mean that the best Portuguese comes from there. (Michel, 22 years old)

I find São Tomé Portuguese, Santomeans, very clear, [more] than the Portuguese from. . .from. . .from Portugal, yeah. Yeah. . .the Santomean person expresses himself/herself well. . .words like, clear, with no difficulty, with no difficulty at all because who can’t understand them is someone who is not used with Portuguese, you know?  I think that it’s a very clear Portuguese, and. . .it’s my land, I can only answer with my Portuguese, because of course, I’m not gonna say that Portuguese from Brazil is a good Portuguese! (Maria, 31 years old)

These two young Santomeans hold their variety of Portuguese in high regard in comparison to other varieties of Portuguese. Thus, what does it mean today to be Santomean? What is the link between languages and identity in São Tomé and Príncipe? Very little has been written about Santomean identity by Santomeans, and the little information that does exist appears quite pessimistic. The literature refers to the national creoles as being an intrinsic element of Santomean culture and identity. However, it also criticizes both the preference that Santomeans have for what comes from outside their nation rather than inside it, as well as the undefined nature of their identity (Bragança, 2012; Costa, 2016). I agree with these authors in the sense that the Santomean identity is still under construction, but I also believe that Santomean Portuguese is the language that is slowly becoming attached to Santomean identity. There is still nostalgia for the past and the creole languages, as if they embodied the Santomean identity as opposed to the Portuguese of the colonizers. Now that the colonizers are gone and have left their language as a trace of their long stay on the islands, Santomeans are becoming a nation, a Portuguese-speaking nation, with its own variety of Portuguese.


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1 The term “creole” is still problematic to creolists (Kouwenberg & Singler 2011). But most creolists recognize that creole languages develop in contact situations that involve more than two languages, and that they are native languages (Thomason 2001). The creoles of São Tomé and Príncipe are Portuguese-based creoles, which means that their lexicons were mainly drawn from Portuguese.



2 Refer to Smedley and Smedley (2011) who examined the evolution of the concept of race and how we came to believe that our societies were composed of unequal human groups.



3 I also include in this paper a few excerpts of interviews I did with Santomeans who live outside the capital. I call them “external informants”, and two of them are included in this paper. Their inclusion in my analysis is helpful to understand the contrast between urban and rural Santomeans.



4 STP News is a fictitious name for the journal where Célia works.